Think back to the tragic events of December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California when Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik orchestrated a mass shooting that killed 14 people and injured 22 others. The perpetrators were immediately labeled as Muslim extremists and the massacre described as a terrorist attack by mass media.
Now think back to how differently other mass shootings have been presented by the media. 20-year-old Adam Lanza was responsible for the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 that resulted in the death of 26 individuals, 20 of which were school-aged children. On May 24, 2022, 18 -year-old Salvador Ramos fatally shot 19 students and 2 teachers at a Uvalde Elementary School in Texas. Most recently, just last week, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran killed 11 people and injured 9 in a dance studio in Monterey Park, California. In all three of these massacres, none of the perpetrators were identified by their religion or ethnicity, and none of the horrific events were labeled as acts of terrorism by the media.
Why were the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shooting immediately associated with their Islamic faith? While Islamophobia has waxed and waned over centuries, it sky-rocketed after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Since then, the American media has consistently demonized Muslims as terrorists and extremists in these unfortunate events, and this has had major ramifications for the mental health and wellbeing of Muslim citizens all around America.
Research demonstrates that negative stereotypical portrayal of Muslims in the news and popular media contributes to low self-esteem, influences perceived discrimination, and can be associated with feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and isolation. Low self-esteem has been proven in multiple studies to be linked with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Words matter, and the manner in which Muslims are portrayed in the media matters. Derogatory discourse aimed towards Muslims is affecting their mental health, and nobody is speaking up about this.
According to the 2022 American Muslim Poll, Muslims in America are just as likely to commit acts of violence, are equally as civically engaged and invested in the success and stability of the US and less misogynistic than other religious and non-religious groups. These realities are then compared to the respondents’ endorsements of five Islamophobic tropes as reported in the Poll’s “Islamophobic Index”. American Muslims’ endorsement of these tropes has risen sharply since 2016, suggesting they are increasingly believing the false media portrayal of Muslim’s false anti-American sentiments, and internalizing the disproportionate reporting of ideologically-driven violence perpetrated by Muslims. As of 2022, Muslims themselves were the most likely group to agree with many of these tropes; when compared to Jews, Christians, and the general public. Muslims were also the most likely group surveyed to believe that they themselves are partially responsible for acts of violence carried out by other Muslims. This high level of internalized oppression is a result of endorsing negative stereotypes about one’s own community that are reinforced by bigoted media messaging and imbalanced reporting. The low self-esteem, psychological distress, and shame many Muslims across America experience is utterly heartbreaking and resulting in poorer and poorer health outcomes.
Islamophobia and hate speech have also trickled down and affected vaccine participation amongst Muslims. Nearly half (42%) of all Black Muslims have not received a single shot of the Covid-19 vaccine, with Black Muslims more likely than Black Americans in the general public to not have received the vaccine. The number one cited factor for Black Muslims not receiving the Covid vaccine was their lack of trust in the vaccine. Although there may be a multitude of reasons behind why Black Muslims do not trust the vaccines, trust comes from feeling a sense of belonging within a community. How can Black Muslims trust public health messaging from a media that consistently demonizes their very identity?
Mass media must be held accountable for their language directed at the Muslim community in America. Islamophobia is a public health crisis, and the media can ameliorate this by not perpetuating false narratives and reinforcing negative stereotypes. A successful and prosperous America depends on the well-being of each and every one of its diverse citizens that are making important contributions to the country. Muslims cannot optimally make these contributions if their health continues to deteriorate and Islamophobia continues to rise.